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A little honesty about infallibility would be nice.

Reformation is never-ending. It's not just individual Christians who need reforming. The official church herself stands in constant need of purgation and reconversion. Such is the meaning of the ancient formula Ecclesia semper reformanda.

Such a sentiment is the opposite of that triumphalism that Vatican II aimed to eradicate. Triumphalism acts as though Catholic history, teachings and officials (especially popes and bishops) are free from the worst of sins and the worst of mistakes. Infallibility and impeccability cover all things Catholic like a saintly stain.

So, in the old days, loyal Catholics had to go through all sorts of mental and historical contortions to justify the wickedness of the Crusades and the Inquisition and blazing scandals like the Renaisance popes.

In a recent reading I came across two delightful examples of churchmen who could be bluntly honest about Catholic sin and Catholic sins.

In his newly published memoirs, Memories and Hopes, Belgium's Leon-Joseph Cardinal Suenens tells of his experiences as a seminary teacher before World War II. One day a candidate for the priesthood approached him while he was praying in his breviary:

"He took a few hesitant steps in my direction and, out of the blue, spoke these words that he had been longing to express. |Professor, I am opposed to the church!' ... I closed my breviary, looked at him calmly and said: |Of course you are, my friend; who isn't?'"

Years later, as a priest, that man attributed the savings of his vocation to the future cardinal's honesty.

A few months ago in the London Tablet a woman named Melanie McDonagh honored the death of her old parish priest, Father Breen. As a teenager, she worried about "keeping up my end with the Protestants. It had been brought to my notice that the home life of the Renaisance popes fell well short of Our Lord's." Also foreseeing trouble with the Reformation, she nervously approached her Irish parish priest for counterarguments.

After tea and cakes she explained her problem. Unruffled, he explained that the church was "simply awful. Worse than I could possibly imagine. ... [But] the church was like a jewel, which passed from one dirty hand to the next, without the jewel ever losing its beauty. The church's truth, in other words, was quite distinct from the ratbags [sic] who passed it on."

These two clerics not only practiced good psychology, they practiced good theology. And they helped prepare those young people for the Lenten realities of the church in this or any other century.

Father Joe Gallagher is a priest of the Baltimore diocese.
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Author:Gallagher, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 16, 1993
Words:427
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